Cuckoo Song

Triss is on holiday with her family when she falls into a pond and wakes up the next morning feeling strange. Most notably, she has an insatiable appetite. Plus, her dolls seem to be moving, and her little sister, Pen, can’t stand the sight of her (although that’s not entirely new, it seems worse than ever). Her family’s already under strain, having lost their eldest son, Sebastian, in World War I, and Triss’s health was already delicate before this new crisis. It’s a lot, and Triss, only 13 years old, is at a loss about what to do.

This book by Frances Hardinge is enjoyably creepy, but with a sweetness in the end that keeps in from feeling unbearably dark. In fact, a lot of the horror is confined to the earliest pages, as Triss tries to figure out what’s going on. Once Triss teams up with Violet, Sebastian’s fiancée, the book feels more like an adventure story, with scary monsters to avoid but less of the unease that makes horror stories so potent (for me, anyway). And the book has a pleasing sweetness that grows and grows throughout the book to become downright heart-warming by the end.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Speculative Fiction | 1 Comment

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

What a peculiar crime novel this is! I liked it, mostly because it kept me guessing, but a lot of my guessing was about the world of the novel, not so much the mystery.

Claire DeWitt is a renowned detective who’s been solving crimes since she was a teenager in Brooklyn. She’s committed to the methods of Jacques Silette, the famous French detective whose book, Detection, offers musings about what it is to seek to solve a crime, not so much tips for questioning suspects or getting fingerprints. Claire does employ some of these traditional methods, but she also throws I Ching coins, consults her dreams, and uses drugs to get into a meditative state. (The drugs are also probably to escape her past, which is a topic that comes up again and again in the book.)

Claire is in New Orleans, not long after Hurricane Katrina, to find out what happened to Vic Willing, one of the city’s district attorneys, who seems to have been missing since before the floods. Looking for Willing brings Claire in contact with a lot of the young men who spend their days on the streets, getting in trouble and making trouble. She forms reluctant partnerships (on both sides) with some of them, in part to gather clues about the community but in part to figure out how they’re connected to Willing’s disappearance. As it typical in crime fiction, everyone involved has secrets, and attempting to unearth them puts Claire in danger.

The story of the crime itself, and its resolution, is not especially original or surprising. What makes this novel by Sara Gran unique and interesting is Claire’s method. She talks about following the clues, but the clues aren’t necessarily straightforward pieces of evidence from a crime scene. A sign she happens to see on a wall might be a clue. Something she recalls in a drug-induced hallucination might be a clue. It’s not detection as a system of assembling evidence. It’s detection as a state of mind, almost a spiritual practice. It’s odd, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I do like the idea of one’s subconscious working things out based on actual evidence, and I think a lot of Claire’s approach is about accessing what the subconscious is uncovering, which is interesting.

Claire herself is an extremely messy detective, with an extremely messy life, but that’s common in the genre, and I liked her enough to want to stick with her and hope that she figures some things out about her own life. Although I also suspect that a Claire DeWitt on the straight and narrow wouldn’t be such a good detective, which makes for a tricky tension.

Posted in Mysteries/Crime | 1 Comment

Let’s Kill Uncle

Before they’ve even arrived at the remote Canadian island where they are to spend their summer, Barnaby and Christie are making trouble. The two 10-year-olds met on the boat over and immediately started quarrelling and getting into trouble. But a few days of indulgence (two breakfasts!) and discipline (cleaning the cemetery), and the two become allies and friends to each other and to everyone on the island. They don’t stop making trouble, but, for the most part, it’s not mean-spirited trouble. But then Barnaby’s uncle arrives.

This 1963 novel by Rohan O’Grady is a dark comedy, where the darkness is really very serious, but it’s so tempered by the lightness that it doesn’t feel weighty. It becomes clear very quickly that Barnaby’s uncle is an abuser and a murderer, and when the children decide that the only thing to do it to kill him, their decision is understandable because no one ever believe Barnaby when he tries to explain what’s happening. This aspect of the story feels almost too real because it’s so common a story.

But this isn’t a serious tale of the ravages of child abuse. It’s a dark comedy. It’s strongly hinted that Uncle isn’t just a bad dude but a literal monster. And there’s a one-eared cougar who becomes key to the events of the novel and a pleasing character in his own right. The book shows its age a bit in its handling of a character with some sort of mental disability, but I do think the depiction is meant to be kind and affectionate. Overall, I think this is a book that likes its characters (the ones who aren’t evil) and that makes it easy for me to like the book. And the darkly comic aspects of it keep it from feeling like one of those treacly novels about quirky small-town people who have all the real knowledge and insight. O’Grady balances the light and dark really well, and that made this a satisfying read.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

My future was a matter of complete indifference to me. I felt neither anxiety or fear. In any case there was nothing I could do. In my mind I retraced my strange journey from Moscow, always south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice.

Teffi is the pen name of the Russian humorist Nadezhda Lokhvitzkaya whose stories, poems, and plays appeared in numerous Russian publications in the early 20th century. This book, translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, is her account of leaving Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. Although she’d been initially supportive of the revolution, she was disturbed by how it was playing out, and when given the chance to travel to Odessa to give readings of her work, she decided it was a good time to leave the city for a while. She never returned.

Although the book is set in a time of political unrest, Teffi concerns herself less with the politics and more with the experience of the people. As a public figure, she has some privilege, but she runs into one difficulty after another as she makes her way to Odessa, and eventually out of Ukraine to Constantinople. There are checkpoints, inscrutable rules, shortages of housing and food, and general instability. She is well known enough to find friends at the various cities she stays in along the way, but those friends are having as much trouble as she is, and making sure she’s able to find a room or get on board a ship is not necessarily their top priority.

Our days were indeed at the mercy of a whirlwind. It tossed us to the left; it tossed us to the right.

One of the things that struck my most is that the only real constant Teffi encounters is instability. Whenever she’s able to stop and breathe for a bit, maybe even get a writing job and a comfortable room, it doesn’t last. And the shifts are sometimes breathtakingly fast. One day, everything is fine. And the next, evacuation is essential and there’s no way out. It is sort of terrifying.

This past week, there was a brief discussion on the Pantsuit Politics podcast about the spell of solidity, the idea that the world that we know it is sturdy. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the past few years and possibly even more in the past few months. And this book shows what it can actually look like when all the previously reliable structures slip away. It’s rough, but it’s also not without hope. It’s interesting to watch Teffi and those around her adapt. And that’s really what this book is about. It’s more observational than meditative. Teffi does not often step back and really consider the political landscape and Russia’s future. She lives and observes each moment as it is presented to her. Perhaps that is what gets her in trouble, because she doesn’t always see what’s coming. But perhaps it also gives her the flexibility to take what comes. And it certainly keeps readers there in the moment with her.

Posted in History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 2 Comments

Queens of Geek

I have no idea how this book by Jen Wilde ended up on my bookshelf. A YA romance? Not my usual fare at all. I think it must have been in some gift box or something. I’m open to trying most genres, and this looked potentially like a cute story, so I didn’t want to get rid of it. And finally I got around to reading it, and it is pretty cute!

The book involves three teenage friends who travel from Australia to California to attend SupaCon, a convention for science fiction and fantasy fans. So there’s lots of talk of cosplay and vlogging and video games and many different fandoms, both real and fictional. Charlie is actually attending the fan professionally. She’s a vlogger and actress who just starred in her first movie, a zombie flick that has become a surprise hit. The problem is that her co-lead is her ex-boyfriend, and the studio would love to be able to tell fans that they’re back together. Charlie, however, is much more excited about meeting Alyssa, one of the biggest stars on YouTube.

Charlie has also brought along her friends Taylor and Jamie. Taylor is anxious about anything involving crowds but excited to show off her amazing cosplay as Queen Firestone. And, while Charlie is participating in panels and publicity events, she can hang out with Jamie, a comic book nerd who Taylor has always had a crush on. They even almost sort of went on a date once, but the moment passed, and it seems they’ve moved on, maybe.

It’s pretty clear from the start where the story is going for all three characters. But it’s fun to see how they get there. The one time I went to a con in recent years, I was impressed at the camaraderie and joy that people were taking in the event. And Wilde captures the atmosphere nicely. It’s possibly a bit idealized at times, but, honestly, the con I went to felt almost unbelievably pleasant. So I bought it.

It is a YA novel, so sometimes the character’s thoughts and feelings were a little too spelled out, to the point that it felt like a little mini-lecture on here’s how to manage anxiety or here’s how to process a hard conversation. I didn’t need that, but I’m a middle aged lady! I can imagine some of those parts being really helpful for a teenager who’s still figuring this stuff out.

Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Fugitive Telemetry

I’ve abandoned three books this August, which is an unusually high number for me. But almost immediately after I decided to give up on the third book, I got an email from the library saying that my hold for the ebook of the latest Murderbot novella had just come in. What good timing!

This book finds Murderbot back on Preservation Station and annoyed about the lax security and generally just wanting to keep to itself, do its job looking after Dr. Mensah, head of Preservation, and watch its shows. But then a dead body turns up, and Murderbot is asked to help investigate, much to the annoyance of Indah, the station’s chief security officer. But the two figure out a way to work together.

As usual, Murderbot is full of awkwardness at figuring out how to deal with people, but it is very good at understanding tech. So there might be subtleties in how bots communicate that Murderbot would pick up on while not necessarily understanding aspects of human behavior that aren’t represented on its shows. It was fun to see how Murderbot’s specific skills were really useful for following clues. And, of course, its resigned attitude of being willing to help even if it doesn’t want to is always there. (I think it’s pretty clear Murderbot really does want to help, just not to admit it just yet.)

I’m glad that, with Fugitive Telemetry, Martha Wells has returned to novellas for Murderbot. It was just the right length  and the right level of complexity in the plot. Just enough and just right.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Let the Great World Spin

As I was reading this 2009 novel by Colum McCann, it occurred to me that it had been a while since I’d read one of these novels in stories. They seemed to be everywhere when this came out and won the National Book Award. Have they fallen out of fashion since then? Or have I just avoided them?

I don’t think I’ve consciously avoided these kinds of books, but neither have I sought them out. I’ve liked many of the ones I’ve read, although they books rarely end up as top favorites. And I have of late been more drawn to plot-driven books with a strong storyline than I have sometimes been, and that may have lessened the appeal of books like this. Still, this has been on my list to maybe try someday, and now I have. It’s fine. Not sure I get all the fuss about it, but it’s fine.

The book is set mostly around August 1974, when Philippe Petit walked on a high wire stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Anything involving the World Trade Center is weighty material, and Petit’s achievement is a marvel. Is it also a gimmick in this book? Sort of. But it’s pretty effective as an anchor that places each story in a specific moment in time. On the day Petit was crossing the high wire, a mother and daughter were arrested for prostitution, a young married couple drove their vintage car into New York City, a group of grieving mothers met at a Park Avenue apartment. The ways their stories intertwine is gradually revealed.

This is very much a New York book, and McCann does an admirable job of trying to show the variety of people living in the city. He’s more successful with some than with others, I thought. I didn’t entirely buy the voice of Tillie, for instance, when she takes over the narrative.

I did, however, enjoy the interactions between Claire (a white woman living in a posh penthouse) and Gloria (a Black woman living in a modest Bronx apartment). The two are part of a group of mothers who lost sons in Vietnam who meet periodically to grieve together. And Claire’s desire to be a properly progressive white lady and total inability to do so would seem almost cliched if the book were written today. But, for 2009, it showed some pretty good insights into a dynamic that was much less talked about then. I would have enjoyed a book all about the two of them. The rest was kind of ordinary. Nothing particularly frustrating, nothing particularly dazzling.

Posted in Fiction | 7 Comments

We

First published in Russia in 1921, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is the literary ancestor of books like Brave New World by 1984. You have a totalitarian system, a regular dude within the system, a sexy lady, and rebellion that may or may not work. For me, the book, as translated by Mirra Ginsburg, doesn’t work as well as its descendants.

The world of We is built on numbers, and our protagonist D-503, is an engineer working for the One State to build the Integral, a device that will be launched into space to share the story of the One State. The book is a series of records D-503 wrote to celebrate the One State for any alien beings who encounter the Integral.

The One State is built on numbers, its citizens are numbers, and each one is assigned a specific task. Who gets to reproduce is determined by algorithm and imagination is a force to be fought against and eliminated if possible. Everyone lives in glass rooms and are allowed only to pull down the shades if having sex, which participants must get permission for in writing.

D-503 has been in a sexual relationship with 0-90 for some time, but then he becomes fascinated by a woman named I-330. That in itself is not a big deal, since multiple partners are allowed (perhaps encouraged?), but I-330 seems to have a rebellious streak and tries to bring that same rebellion out in D-503. And so it begins.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes, but I often found the story difficult to follow. I don’t know if it was the translation, the difference between Russia 100 years ago and America today, or my own dimness, but it was hard to get a sense of how the world of the One State worked beyond the most rudimentary outline or to understand the stakes for the characters when they began to rebel. (Even though the textbook plonked in the middle of 1984 stopped the story, it helped readers know how Oceana worked, so I was never mad at it.)

I also found the writing really bland and sometimes opaque, which I thought could be because D-503 has been conditioned to lack the qualities that could make for good writing. However, I’ve seen reviews that remark on the good writing, so perhaps I read the wrong translation. I had to go back and reread frequently because the transitions from scene to scene and the identification of characters was so sparse. And, overall, it just didn’t seem worth the effort. I think this book’s value is primarily historical. I didn’t find it particularly interesting or entertaining to read on its own merits.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Goldfinch

I’ve read all three of Donna Tartt’s novels, but this is the first one I’ve enjoyed almost without reservation. The Little Friend, which I read because I ran across it in the library without knowing Donna Tartt was a Big Author of a Big Book, was fine but forgettable. And The Secret History was good, but I was bewildered that what seemed to be to be mostly a solid and overlong crime novel had become a literary darling.

The Goldfinch was worked better for me. I think part of the reason is that I’m tired of literary novels that dance around in time or play narrative tricks (dances and tricks that I sometimes suspect obscure plot holes). In this Tartt tells a straightforward story, and what surprises appear are there because the book’s narrator is in the dark, not because of narrative trickery. Like her other books, it’s probably longer than it needs to be, but the length helped me feel immersed in the story in a way that I might not have have the book been a more typical 300-400 pages.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo who, at age 13, loses his mother in the bombing of an art museum. But in the confusion after the bombing, he walks away with her favorite painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. The novel follows Theo as he moves from home to home (his alcoholic father having abandoned him and his mother before the bombing), always with the painting in two, his special secret and eventual burden. Something he loves, but knows doesn’t belong to him, and doesn’t know how to handle.

I liked that the book takes Theo’s trauma seriously without including long discursions about what trauma does to a person. We watch the effects in his fear-driven decision making, his feeling of isolation (despite being cared for by so many people), his avoidance and eventual addiction. He knows from experience how suddenly and unexpectedly everything can go south, and he seems to arrange his life with that in mind. He’s not risk-averse — in fact, he’s sometimes drawn to risk. He just seems to live in the moment, dwelling on the immediate crisis, not considering the long-term consequences, because why would he?

Theo, as narrator, is the heart of the book, and I think it won’t work for any reader who doesn’t respond to who Theo is. But I liked the other characters, too. Most of them felt authentic, like people with their own histories that shaped them, even if we get little more than glimpses of them.

Toward the end of the book, as the story of the painting comes to a head, I began to feel its length. I wasn’t all that interested in the whole plot about the art theft underworld and found the number of characters and complexity of the action sequences overwhelming. That’s an area where the book could have been trimmed and simplified a bit without much harm, I think. Keep the cataclysm, yes, but involve fewer people. Otherwise, though, I enjoyed reading this. For me these days, good storytelling is the key to a good novel. Narrative tricks aren’t always needed.

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

Devotions

I like poetry, but more in theory than in practice because I have trouble staying in the habit of reading it. But for the last month or so, I’ve been slowly working through Mary Oliver’s Devotions, which is a collection assembled from several of her earlier books. I like Oliver’s poetry because the individual poems are pretty short, and they tend to move around through the same images and themes, so you can read a bunch at a stretch and feel immersed in a particular mood, or just read one and enjoy the particular image it evokes.

In “When Death Comes,” she writes:

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

That feeling of not wanting to be a visitor in this world imbues all her poetry. Oliver does not merely visit, she inhabits, looking deeply at everything around her, mostly in the natural world, but also within friends and family. And she meditates on it and lets it change her perspective, and that of her readers. It doesn’t have to be a grand vista or a roaring sea to warrant her attention, as she writes:

I don’t want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them, are singing.
How the river can’t wait to get to the ocean and the sky, it’s been there before.

I enjoy Mary Oliver’s poetry partly because it wakes me up to what’s in my own world to observe. That seems more important than ever in a time when the world is so contracted.

Posted in Poetry | 4 Comments